I love that ars technica is doing a series on Future U, and that their recent entry on Libraries 3.0 (hate the title) gave me a chance to brag about cool things my colleagues are doing (namely Orbis and SearchWorks). But, as I narcissistically went back to read the comments, I got increasingly frustrated at the level and content of discourse there (Note to self: Reading comments on the internet is almost always a bad idea). Most of the comments seem to revolve around the tired old argument of “now that everything is online, who needs a library?”, with a real focus on the role of public libraries.
Now let me be clear right from the get-go: I LOVE ALL LIBRARIES. I love public libraries, I love school libraries, special libraries, small libraries, big libraries, liberal arts libraries, community college libraries, rock-n-roll libraries, baseball libraries… you get the picture. But we are not all the same. Although you might argue that we all have the same overarching mission of providing access to information; there are tremendous differences in the types of information we provide and the types of patron needs we serve. At a time when one thing all libraries share is a struggle for resources, I think it is critical that we figure out how to make clear and compelling cases for what we do and what value we add to our communities. That task is made all the more challenging by a lack of nuance in public understanding of the different missions of different libraries, and in that sense I fear that the ars technica piece doesn’t do us any favors.
I had to re-read the ars technica story a few times to understand why an article that is supposed to be about university libraries leads with a quote from the director of the San Rafael Public Library (the wonderful Sarah Houghton, aka Librarian in Black). The argument is that
undergraduate students are the primary patrons of university libraries, so the expectations of today’s kids are the main force driving change in university libraries. And here is where things get muddy for me. Not only are public libraries very different from university libraries, but not all university libraries are alike either. For example, while we certainly love our undergraduates, they are not our largest user base, and their expectations are not primary factors in setting our priorities. We are an RU/VH: Research University (very high research activity) institution with nearly twice as many graduate students as undergraduates.
The main factors driving innovation and change at the Stanford libraries are the changing nature of scholarly research and communication. We are a research library, after all. As I said in the ars technica article, the main areas of focus for us right now are on developing tools for creating, collecting, preserving, and providing access to new kinds of scholarly objects. We are working on preserving born-digital materials (from video games to emails), and on collaborating with scholars to build interactive spatial-historical tools like Orbis. We’re collecting rare and special materials–all of which need processing and cataloging, and most of which we hope to digitize. We are working on Linked Data, International Image Interoperability standards, and web archiving. We provide GIS support, digital humanities support of all kinds, statistical software support, and “concierge”-level reference and research support. At the very real risk of sounding like an elitist jerk, worrying about whether the kids want touchscreens is just not that high on our priorities list. And, I wouldn’t think that any of the research services I mentioned above would be priorities for a public library, or even a less-research intensive university library. In fact, if the Sunnyvale Public Library was lobbying for funding for web archiving, I would not support it. That kind of service is simply not in their wheelhouse.
I have mentioned before that I think in these times of scarcity the differences between large research libraries and smaller libraries of all kinds is growing. I still think that is true, and I think that a big challenge facing all of us is to make it clear to our constituencies (especially those who control our funding) exactly what distinct services and resources our particular kind of library brings to our particular community. The days when all libraries were places you went to check out books are over. All of us are so much more than that now, but as we expand our services to meet changing needs, we are developing in different directions. And I think university libraries have to get better at explaining what we do and why it is important.